Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

A new National Cultural Policy opportunity

Julianne Schultz, Julian Meyrick, Justin O’Connor, A new national cultural policy is an opportunity for a radical rethinking of the importance of culture in Australia, The Conversation, 18 August 2022

As the cut-off for the government’s consultation on a National Cultural Policy (NCP) approaches, thousands in the sector are putting the finishing touches to their three-page submissions. These are directed around “five pillars” drawn from Creative Australia, the national cultural policy announced in the last months of the Gillard regime, but ignored by the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments thereafter.

Coalition arts ministers showed little interest in cultural policy. Over the last nine years, national cultural institutions lost funding, the Australia Council’s budget was diverted to programs under ministerial control, and key board appointments reflected a lack of sector expertise.

As Gideon Haigh wrote in The Australian,

The pattern of the past 30 years in arts and culture is for Labor to initiate and the Coalition to dismantle.

The new government’s consultation process has been a long time coming and it is welcome.

Creative Nation to Creative Australia

Creative Australia built on Creative Nation, Paul Keating’s National Cultural Policy, which launched in 1994. It emerged from Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit, two major inquiries and a reference group of several dozen people from all parts of the sector. It was designed to enable systematic engagement with culture in all its manifestations.

But much has happened in the nation, the economy and society since 2013. And while the recently announced 15-member NCP advisory panel includes people with deep knowledge, there are some gaps.

Creative Australia drew together a range of competing perspectives and had a broad enough base to start giving culture the clout it needed to be taken seriously as an object of policy. After it was adopted, more money flowed to the Australia Council and other cultural agencies and institutions.

In a fraught world a new national cultural policy needs an even wider framework. Culture touches every part of our public and private lives.A cultural policy should include an arts policy, but also policies addressing national institutions, heritage, the commercial cultural industries, soft power diplomacy, education, community groups and charities, as well as areas of public administration like First Nations, health, welfare, and education where cultural activity is a valued tool.

It must be able to align with state and local governments as active partners in this domain.

A robust arts policy is a first step in developing an expansive, nationally-appropriate cultural policy. Art for its own sake, yes. But art that binds, stretches, and challenges contemporary society.

Above all, a new national cultural policy needs conceptual depth. Culture was once seen as a public good, but has been hollowed out. The Australia Council’s consultation framing document defines its benefits largely in instrumental terms (mental health, social cohesion, education, tourism, the creative economy). Meanwhile, the substance of culture’s intrinsic value remains unaddressed.

A ministry of culture?

One of the key insights from the Creative Australia consultation process was the need for a federal ministry of culture.

Over the past two decades the arts has been tacked on to many other ministerial portfolios: communications, transport, environment, local government, the attorney general’s, and now employment. They should be at the heart of a culture portfolio that draws together elements scattered across the cabinet.

Currently, the arts are buried at the bottom of a drop-down menu, while media and communications (including public and commercial broadcasting) is the responsibility of another minister.

A culture ministry would allow effective aggregation of the significant expenditure made in culture across government. They exist in most comparable countries. A properly constituted ministry could assess the cultural impact of new policy proposals from any department.

In the 1990s, Australia was ahead of the global curve in redefining art and culture for a new democratic, multicultural era. The 2020s present different problems: climate change, digitisation, globalisation, inequality and a growing distrust in democratic institutions. A dedicated cultural ministry is the best way of addressing them with a perspective that touches lives and builds strong institutions.

This is not just a challenge for Australia. As Professor Hans Mommaas, Director of The Netherland’s Environmental Assessment Agency, put it to us recently:

In the midst of our various problem agendas… there is no clear place… any longer for the role of culture in the sense of creating and celebrating collective forms of imagination (and) communication… We must have a rich cultural sphere… for culture to be instrumental to these other agendas… Why not start with redeveloping the story-line that in the midst of the crises we find ourselves in, we urgently need a revival of a cultural sphere and that the current lack of this… is producing (a) distrust in the future and (a) lack of collective imagination.

Breathing new life into a decade-old national cultural policy is a useful beginning. But as Arts Minister Tony Burke has said of the current consultation process, “it is a trajectory, not a destination”. What is required now is an in-depth gestation period to position culture as a public good in the life of the nation.

The right of citizens to participate in, and contribute to, the cultural activities of the community is accepted in a number of the international agreements to which Australia is signatory. In an age of streaming platforms, public funding cuts and rising inequality, these cultural rights must be revisited and reasserted.

A new national cultural policy is an opportunity for a radical rethinking of the importance of culture to a troubled age. More than ever, we need creativity and an understanding of cultural heritage to imagine our collective future.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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